Food expert says more tests needed before fried foods are tabled

October 24, 2002

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University foods and nutrition associate professor is one of the nation's experts invited to Chicago at the end of the month to discuss the discovery of a potential carcinogen in starchy, fried foods.

"An ad hoc group, composed of food industry, trade association, and academic and government representatives, is bringing together food and nutrition experts to assess where we are on this topic and to plot the course for future action," said Charles Santerre, who specializes in chemical contaminants in food.

The workshop, Monday through Wednesday (10/28-10/30), is part of the annual National Center for Food Safety and Technology Conference that is sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration.

Six months ago the Swedish Food Authority reported that some of our favorite foods, such as potato chips and french fries, may contain acrylamide. At high levels, acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in animals. The implications of the Swedish findings motivated the World Health Organization to rapidly convene international experts to discuss the impact of this discovery.

"The Food and Drug Administration is taking this very seriously, but there are holes in the data that can't be answered overnight," said Santerre, who began studying this topic more closely this spring and is well known for his research on contaminants in food. "We do know that we have been eating fried and baked foods for hundreds of years with no apparent adverse effects."

In April the Swedish Food Authority reported a wide range of acrylamide concentrations when examining a small number of starchy and fried foods. The amounts ranged from 30 to 2,300 parts per billion. Acrylamide is considered to be a probable human carcinogen and is a known neurotoxicant, said Joanne Lasrado, doctoral candidate in foods and nutrition at Purdue. The substance is a white crystalline, water-soluble compound that is used in the paper, paint, leather tanning and mining industries. It also is present in cigarette smoke.

Acrylamide is formed when foods high in starch are cooked in temperatures greater than 248 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking methods that require this amount of heat include roasting, grilling, barbecuing and baking. It is believed that when a naturally occurring amino acid, asparagine, is heated with certain sugars, such as glucose, acrylamide is created. Many snack foods are made up of starch, which is a good source of the simple sugar, glucose.

Boiled starchy foods do not show an increase in acrylamide.

Santerre said more information is needed before people abandon french fries or potato chips.

"People don't understand that traces of carcinogens can be found in pretty much all of our foods," Santerre said. "Detecting a carcinogen is not a reason to change dieting patterns. We also need to think about the dose, since small doses can be harmless while high doses can be harmful. It is the job of the toxicologist to determine at what level the dose becomes harmful."

There also is no conclusive evidence that acrylamide causes cancer in humans. Questions still remain about the levels and extent of acrylamide in food products, the mechanisms by which it is formed in fried foods, whether the body can efficiently absorb and process it, along with the toxicological implications.

Lasrado said scientists need to develop analytical methods that can be more routinely used for the analysis of acrylamide in foods, since current methods are slow, expensive and technically difficult to perform. Studies also need to be conducted to find ways to reduce acrylamide formation during cooking.

Until there are more answers, the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization recommend people avoid overcooking foods.

"However, the organizations also advise that you adequately cook meat and meat products to destroy food-borne pathogens," Lasrado said. "They reinforced eating a healthy balanced diet that is low in fat and has a lot of fruits and vegetables."
Sources: Charles Santerre, 765-496-3443,
Joanne Lasrado, 765-494-8249,

Related Web sites:

Charles Santerre's Web site:

National Center for Food Safety and Technology:

Purdue University

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